Our Neo-Gnostic World
“The whole world groaned, and was astonished to find itself Arian.” — St. Jerome.
Now the whole world groans, and is astonished to find itself Gnostic.
Over on my subscriber-only Substack (become a subscriber here), I’ve been talking about modern Gnosticism. I recently read an excellent thriller, Coyote Forkby James Wilson, in which a journalist, Robert Lovelace, is trying to solve the possible murders of a couple of people, connected to Global Village, a kind of Facebook, and its enigmatic founder Evan Bone. Bone was born and raised in a failed hippie commune called Coyote Fork. From one of my posts last week:
In Coyote Fork, Wilson shows why these communes failed: they were all founded on some form of the belief that man is born good, but society makes him evil. If they can recreate society to get rid of the things that make people bad, they will have regenerated paradise. In Wilson’s view, the techno-utopians are making the same mistakes, but this time, the entire world has to pay the price. For example, tech brought into existence social media mobs who drive cancel culture, and surveillance technology that makes it very hard to escape that mob. This plays a key role in Coyote Fork.
The philosophical heart of the book is its discussion of Gnosticism as the foundation of techno-utopianism. It comes up in Lovelace’s association with Ruth Halassian, a philosophy professor who knew Evan Bone at Stanford. Ruth is being harassed by woke students at her small Ohio liberal arts college because she challenges their wokeness on philosophical grounds. They call her a hater and a bigot, and are trying to run her out of town. Ruth explains to Rob Lovelace:
“It’s not that I’m totally unsympathetic,” she said, sitting down again. “They want to study other points of view, that’s great. But first they have to learn how to think, how to distinguish between a good idea and a bad one. And believing you can do that based simply on the gender or the skin color of the person who came up with it—that’s plain dumb.”
“That’s what got me into trouble. I told a student what I thought. And it turned out she was recording the conversation. And she complained to the Dean that I’d called her dumb. And he backed her, and I was suspended.
Ruth and Rob go on talking. She recalls what Evan Bone was like in college.
“But that didn’t stop him having a philosophy. Without realizing it. He’s a Gnostic.”
She leaned forward, studying my face.
“The slack mouth. The glazed eyes. I’m losing you.”
I laughed. “I’m sorry.”
She shook her head.
“I’m always losing people. Especially men. They thought they were meeting for a drink and find they’ve signed up for a seminar.”
She hesitated. “OK, bees. Back in your bonnet.”
“It’s fine,” I said. “Just—” I opened a hand: Explain.
“The belief that the material world is evil. That it was made, not by God, but by a wicked demiurge called Rex mundi, who’s responsible for all the mess and contradiction of life.”
She glanced at the sink.
“The dirty dishes. The hairballs.”
She tweaked Aristotle’s tail.
She rubbed her face against the soft fur.
“Especially the cats. So that’s the bad news. The good news is, each of us still has a little spark of the original divine spirit created by God. And—if we can get in touch with it, through esoteric knowledge—we’ll be saved. Throw off the shackles of the physical. Become pure spirit. For which, in the case of Evan Bone, read: Pure intellect.”
Thus the transhumanist dream of uploading human consciousness to the cloud as data. (This, by the way, is the philosophy at the heart of Paul Kingsnorth’s profoundly anti-Gnostic 2020 novel Alexandria.)
Rob asks Ruth if Evan Bone ever talked about colonizing Mars when he was in college.
“Not that I remember. But it would figure. You don’t like this world, so you leave it for another one, where you can plug yourself into some super-intelligence that will free you from your body. It’s the spirit of the age. The yearning for purity. The kids here are all the same.”
“They want to go to Mars?”
“They want to be perfect. The only difference is, their Rex Mundi isn’t the demiurge, it’s patriarchy. If we just stop teaching those dead white male philosophers, and purge our vocabulary of troublesome terms, then we can re-program ourselves to become pure thought. Literal. Transparent. Uniform.”
“And of course, they love Evan Bone. Because Global Village is the ultimate surveillance tool. If you think the way to reach perfection is to police what people are saying—what they’re thinking—it really doesn’t get better than that. So they all belong to their own little Village communities, where they trade dirt on heretics like me. And orchestrate online campaigns against us.”
You can see why I got so into this novel, can’t you?
Ten years ago, Benjamin Wiker published a short essay in Catholic World Report about “the new Gnosticism.”
More recently, the philosopher Edward Feser published a lengthy but indispensable guide to our new Gnostic politics.
Megan Rials, a subscriber to my Substack (and a fellow Baton Rougean), e-mailed this letter, which I publish with her permission:
I am firmly convinced that God directs our reading in providential ways. I read your newsletter on Gnosticism the other night only to read directly afterwards a piece that directly rebuts Gnosticism, even though Gnosticism is never explicitly mentioned. The piece is a chapter in Beholding the Glory: Incarnation through the Arts, edited by Jeremy Begbie, and the chapter in question is by Malcolm Guite. Guite focuses on incarnation through literature, and wow, what a rebuttal to the Gnostic tendency to reject the flesh and the material world. Guite analyzes the poem “The Incarnate One” by Edwin Muir. (Link to the text: https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-incarnate-one/ .) Guite notes the following about the poem:
“Glib knowledge of bad theology has destroyed the mystery and taken away the poet’s sense of wonder and this leads him to plead for ‘not knowing’, for a restoration of ‘ignorant wonder’. He wants us to see the Word made flesh in all the particular agony of the cross before we start to have any theories about it at all, and his poem helps us to do that. He is not denying the truth of the incarnation, the staggering truth that ‘there a God suffered and died’, but he is trying to protect it from a too easy or abstract formulation in order to restore us to a ‘truer sight’….
Muir warns us against the denial of our flesh, the refusal of our own incarnateness, the flight from life into fleshless and bloodless words, a flight and refusal he characterizes as ‘abstract calamity’. This is the fall and hell from which Christ in his incarnation saves us. The salvation is not from the flesh, but of the flesh. The danger is for the theologians and the theoreticians who are refusing Christ in his incarnation, preferring their own fleshless and bloodless versions of his saving work. In this poem God’s incarnation is his point of contact with the flesh of all humanity. We are called to live within our own flesh and to meet God there too….
This last image [of the poem] makes the incarnation something which not only happened uniquely and fully in the birth and life of Christ, but, because he has never laid aside his humanity, it is something which in another sense is still happening as God in Christ journeys towards us, passing through the cold empire of our abstractions and the endless mirages our empty culture throws up, until at last, on the far side of the cross, his humanity touches ours.”
He goes on to note that “the arts are never discarnate” and explains that when we create a piece of literature, it is “a movement from the abstract to the concrete, from the timeless to time, from spirit to flesh. It is, under its own analogy, a movement towards incarnation. By struggling, as it were, to incarnate an abstract or momentary vision into the ambiguous medium of a living language, we are constrained to be particular, to give our vision flesh and blood, and are drawn away from the ‘abstract calamity’ of the fleshless, bloodless ‘ideological argument’. Of course once we are engaged in this struggle we discover that, miraculously, the movement is also the other way—that the particularity, the ‘thisness’ of the medium with which we struggle, has something new to teach us about the ‘abstract truth’ we were in the first instance trying to embody.”
Guite is right that “glib knowledge of bad theology” can destroy the mystery of the Incarnation and how Jesus has met us in our own flesh. The trouble with the current generations, however, is that they don’t even know theology at all—or at least, not through doctrine. They’ve likely imbibed the idea that the material world is bad in part through the rise of the computer and technology, i.e., “virtual reality.” Who wouldn’t want to live in a world where everything is for the instant creating and taking? You can fashion a life for yourself that is tailored to your every preference. You can become an instant professional-level athlete (maybe not instant, to be fair to die-hard gamers, but you can improve much faster than you would in real life). You don’t have to reckon with your own bodily limitations or struggle physically in creating anything, whether it’s a garden or a work of art. In short, you don’t need God because you’ve become the god of your own virtual world—one that is fleshless and bloodless, that is an “abstract calamity.”
We also have the problem of modern medicine rendering suffering as an evil problem that merely popping a pill can solve. I don’t mean to suggest that modern medicine is all bad; my chronic migraines would have sentenced me to a miserable existence in a different era. But the idea that any twinge of discomfort is an unspeakable evil of our bodies “trapping us” only serves to confirm further the idea that the body is bad and must be escaped. (Personally, I’m thankful for the migraines, in a strange way, because they remind me of my need for God—and if my body right now can withstand the horrors of a migraine, how much glorious will my resurrected body be!)
All this to say, we’ve become alienated from our own bodies—no wonder, then, that when we encounter a feeling we don’t understand or don’t like, our first instinct is to say that reality must bend to our will and change accordingly. We don’t demand that we rise to the occasion, or gain self-control, or submit our desires to a greater will than our own—as we do in our video games, we simply alter our surroundings to suit our whims! Never mind that those whims are as fickle as the wind blows and that they might change; that’s tomorrow’s problem, and we’ll just click a few buttons to arrange our background accordingly.
In my generation’s preoccupation with self-expression might lie a partial answer to the road home to sanity. Self-expression, of course, typically involves the arts. Ironically, it seems to me that many in liberal movements use art to try to “express themselves”; I wonder if they even realize that the creation of art is itself a rejection of the Gnosticism they have embraced about their bodies—because, as you noted, transgenderism has its basis in the belief that the body is evil and we are what we feel we are. I’m surprised they haven’t noticed that when you pour yourself into your art, there’s an engagement with the body that cannot be denied. Even if it’s writing, which is my medium, and “only” typing, there’s a tremendous amount of bodily effort that goes into it. My eyes tire, I start shifting in my seat, I turn phrases over and over in my head, I realize that what I said wasn’t what I really meant, I rewrite, I realize I need to reorganize…it’s like sculpting, trying to wrangle these words into line with my meaning. That takes a physical toll on the mind and the body. How can these progressive artists say that the work of their hands, which is supposed to be such an “expression” of themselves, is evil if their bodies played such a significant role in the creation of their art?
We need to be reminded that, as Guite puts it, our salvation is not from the flesh, but of the flesh. And if we’re going to remind the current generation of Jesus’s saving work, then they must first be convinced that there’s a concrete reality here worth saving. I realize that often, art is the stronghold of progressives in some fashion. But if we can reclaim it—and not in a glib sense of the poorly made Christian movies such as “Fireproof” or the insipid books that pass for much of Christian fiction these days—then what a powerful tool it would be to show our society that in art, we are in fact moving toward an incarnation and creating a work of art, a material thing, that is good. Have we forgotten that Jesus Himself was a carpenter who labored over His designs, sweated while He sanded wood, and built furniture with His own two hands, the same hands later pierced with nails on the cross? Maybe then our society might begin to understand how God created the world, proclaimed it “good,” then chose to redeem it through His own Incarnation. Maybe this is the “abstract truth” we gain from a sincere revival of the arts: to get past the “endless mirages” of virtual reality and the denial of the material that our culture has thrown at us to regain a sense of our own humanity. Because if we aren’t in touch with that humanity, then of course what Jesus’s sacrifice can mean nothing to us. His humanity cannot touch ours if we believe we don’t have a humanity in the first place.
What this kind of deep Christian revival of the arts would look like, I don’t know. I’m not an educator, and I don’t know enough about each different kind of art to speak intelligently about it. (I’ll only note that I use the term “art” broadly here; our artistic talents can take many different forms, far beyond the grade-school painting class the word typically conjures.) But here’s something I have noticed. I’ve dedicated my life to developing my writing ability, and my other passion is shooting, particularly archery. I wondered why these two seemingly disparate activities appeal to me so deeply. But there is a kind of strange similarity between writing and shooting a bow, one that Ray Bradbury discusses in his essay, “Zen in the Art of Writing.” The title itself is a riff on a famous book entitled “Zen in the Art of Archery.” He makes the point that writing and archery are similar in the repetitive demands they make of the body, and the “muscle memory” involved in crafting a good story and in recreating the perfect shot, every time you write or shoot. (This comparison between writing and archery is particularly apt, by the way, because I can say from personal experience that 90% of archery is mental.) We here in Louisiana glorify sports, and sports necessarily involve a discipline of the body—and the mind. So, too, do the arts, and it’s time we started seeing that the dedication the arts also demand from our bodies and minds ground us in our enfleshed existence, in the flesh and blood God called good and Jesus came to redeem.